Skip to main content

William Faulkner and My Middle East Problem


ISSUE:  Summer 1991

Have you noticed how so often when we try to reconstruct the causes which lead up to the actions of men and women, how with a sort of astonishment we find ourselves now and then reduced to the belief, the only possible belief, that they stemmed from some of the old virtues? the thief who steals not for greed but for love, the murderer who kills not out of lust but pity?

—from Absalom, Absalom!

More than 15 years have passed since Saul Bellow “took on” the vexing problem of the Middle East with a brave, and foolish, piece of nonfiction entitled To Jerusalem and Back—brave, because Bellow rushed in where even a Norman Mailer had demurred to tread; and foolish, because the same Saul Bellow whose distracted, brainy protagonists nearly convince us that they have the Big Answers turned out to be just as confused about the Middle East as anybody else.

Granted, To Jerusalem and Back remains an important book because Bellow is an important writer, but one cannot help but feel that the difficulties he faced in 1976 have grown more exacerbating. Bellow, after all, did not have to reckon with the incursions into Lebanon, with the intifada, with Saddam Hussein. All of which is simply to say that journalism, even in the best of hands, cannot entirely avoid the fate of being more interesting today than it is likely to be tomorrow. And if one has the Middle East in mind, obsolescence can come even more quickly. The usual term for the phenomenon I’m trying to describe—and the one that journalists love to fall back on—is “volatile.”

I wrestled with its intimations as I rounded up the usual suspects and my stack of books, articles, and reportage grew to Babel-like proportions: Elie Kedourie, Malcolm Kerr, Bernard Lewis, Theodore Draper, Walter Laquer, Yehoshafat Harkabi, Thomas Friedman, Ruth Wisse, Connor Cruise O’Brien, Hillel Halkin, Amos Oz, A, B. Yehoshua. For a man who has been known to throw a few kind words Matthew Arnold’s way, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of wondering if the “best that has been thought and said” was going to be of much real use in this circumstance. There was, to be sure, a measure of solace in realizing that Bellow himself had come to much the same conclusion after his crash course in Middle Eastern realpolitik, and even an odd mixture of humility, snugness, and relief as I underlined Bellow’s sentence about “History and politics [being] not at all like the notions developed by intelligent, informed people.” But the realization that no thesis, no sustained analysis, no polemical argument was likely to cut through the sheer messiness of the Middle East came as cold comfort. For better or worse, I felt obliged to scratch my “Kilroy was here!” on Jerusalem’s walls.

At this point my eye fastened on a Bellow paragraph that struck me as more promising; and while I cite it less for its contribution to the overall argument of To Jerusalem and Back than for its value in raising certain questions about the relationship of what we read and what we are, the passage helps to set the stage for an exercise in meditation that, paraphrasing Norman Podhoretz’ title, I thought of as “My Middle East Problem—and Ours.” Here, then, are the words that set me to pondering what, if anything, Faulkner’s vision might have to do with the vexations of the Middle East:

Reading The Sound and the Fury last night, I came upon words in Quentin Compson’s thought that belonged to e.e. cummings and the thirties, not to the year 1910. “Land of the kike home of the wop,” says Compson to himself when he buys a bun from a small Italian girl. This I would have read without flinching in Chicago but in Jerusalem I flinched and put the book down. Returning to it next day, I found Faulkner guilty of no offense. It’s possible that people at the turn of the century were saying “land of the kike” and that Faulkner didn’t borrow it from Cummings.

No doubt there is a world of complicated emotions packed into Bellow’s momentary flinch: was it really, as he seems to suggest, simply a matter of establishing the verisimilitude of a character’s remark? Of one writer speculating about another writer’s possible literary piracy? Or closer to the bone, what was it about the Jerusalem that caused him to become the offended reader he presumably was not in Chicago? My hunch is that the stray moment of cultural stereotyping became inextricably, uncomfortably, connected with Bellow’s abiding sense that “there is one fact of Jewish life unchanged by the creation of a Jewish state: you cannot take your right to live for granted.”

Indeed, in the years since Bellow made his visit to Jerusalem no single word has been more charged, more divisive, more likely to earmark the politics of hawks from doves alike, than survival. Beneath the quarrels about initiatives toward peace and possible accommodations to the Palestinians, about what some call the West Bank and others Judea, about the intifada, lies the deeper realization—and its concomitant darker fear—that, unlike the Arabs, Israel must win all its wars, and win them quickly to boot. Small wonder, then, that some grieve about the toll living so long with a bunker mentality has taken, while others insist that introspection is a luxury Israelis simply cannot afford. And, too, small wonder that Jewish-Americans like myself find aspects of both positions unsettling. Add a natural reluctance to join the chorus of those who long before Lebanon, long before with intifada, have always been eager to criticize Israel with an equally natural reluctance to approve of actions that in another country and in similar circumstances I would be quick to condemn, and the result is the special burden of those who look at the Middle East from the smug safety of American soil. The stakes, I kept hearing, were too high and the game too risky for bleeding hearts—be they liberals, literary types, or, worst of all, both at once—to understand.

Not surprisingly, Philip Roth gave the whole American-Israeli nexus an intriguing twist in The Counterlife when he turned the usual categories of diaspora Jew and Israeli citizen on their heads. As he argued, it is the Israeli who has, in effect, become the diaspora Jew: nervous, anxious, fearful, always looking over his shoulder in anticipation of an impending disaster; while the Jewish-American has become comfortably assimilated into his affluent, altogether comfortable American environment. No doubt the cunning of History can operate in precisely such unexpected, unexplainable ways, but I found myself resisting Roth’s easy arithmetic as a bit too facile, a bit too glib—indeed, as betraying everything that simultaneously attracts one to Roth’s infectious style and that later makes one find reasons to resist it. In short, whatever my feelings about Israel and the Middle East, they struck me as requiring more than a wisecracker like Philip Roth could provide.

Faulkner, of course, came with heavyweight credentials intact. Small wonder that Bellow happened to be reading him, but where, I kept asking myself, does the Faulkner who wrestled so fitfully with the demons of prejudice fit into the current equation? After all, Quentin Compson’s bitter assessment of pluralistic America is small potatoes when compared with the rantings of his younger brother Jason; and there is little question I think that Faulkner knew how to give his Jewish characters the full stereotypical treatment. In Pylon, for example, the reporter is hardly alone in regarding Colonel Feinman as every inch a “kike”—with his fat neck and fat cigar, an ostentatious ring and of course, a fixation about money capable of sliding effortlessly into petty cheating. And in “There Was a Queen,” Faulkner gilds the lily by making his villain—the Northern FBI man who blackmails Narcissa Benbow, compromising her “honor” and thus indirectly causing Aunt Jenny’s death—a Jew. These are instances of the Faulkner who was formed by, and who shared, certain local prejudices that dealt far more in abstractions than in actualities. That Faulkner grew up knowing the members of the Friedman family—and even dating Florrie Friedman, in his fashion—is true enough; but in that time, that place, one identified Jews with the cities of the North, and especially with the materialism, the industrialism, and the corruption that urban centers presumably represented.

Later, of course, the same Faulkner seems altogether approving when the Linda Varner Snopes of The Mansion breaks free from the suffocating provincialism of Jefferson/ Oxford by moving in with a sculptor, a free [Greenwich Village] spirit, a Communist, and a Jew; and the same author whose earlier stereotyping had verged perilously close to anti-Semitism becomes something of a philo-Semite—at least to the extent that he came to regard Jews, like Negroes, as evidencing a capacity for suffering and endurance. No doubt the Jews he met in the publishing world and in Hollywood had something to do with Faulkner’s change of heart (although one could argue just as easily that a part of Faulkner remained distant, and more than a little wary). My point, however, is not to weigh Faulkner’s complicated, often contradictory attitudes about the Jews on the scales of contemporary social opinion; rather, what interests me, first, are the ways in which the Bible and Greek tragedies combine into a vision of history deeper than history, more probing than politics; and then how, if at all, this sense of human hearts in conflict with themselves might help me to make a satisfactory, rather than a separate, peace with my Middle East problem.

Faulkner’s greatest works are not merely triumphs of style, of modernist technique—although surely Faulkner’s ability to render states of consciousness and landscapes that are alternately sensually precise and mythically potent is an important aspect of his greatness—but of discovery. Again and again his protagonists are driven to unearth truths that are inextricably entwined with History and yet somehow deeper than that history; and then to live with the consequences of the terrible knowledge they have gained. One thinks, for example, of Ike McCaslin in section 4 of “The Bear” as he pieces together the shards of McCaslin history “concealed” within the commisary ledgers, gradually realizing that what others call a legacy is, in fact, a “curse” or of Quentin Compson, perhaps Faulkner’s consummate “detective,” steadily joining the warp of other people’s memory with the woof of his conflicted feelings about Caddie into a tapestry known as the House of Sutpen but that we recognize as reduplicating in its essential rhythms the House of Atreus.

All this, and more, Faulkner scholars have known since the days when critics such as Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Malcolm Cowley made it brilliantly clear that Faulkner’s complex, fictional world more than repaid our collective efforts as research scholars, close readers, and classroom teachers. At the same time, however, I suspect that I was not alone in preferring the Faulknerian tree to the Faulknerian forest, the image pattern or symbolic motif my graduate education had taught me to control as opposed to those larger, more daunting considerations that, mercifully, lie beyond the journal article or the 50-minute class. Modified in the guts of several generations of such “scholars,” Faulkner became an industry—the occasion for “special issues,” academic conferences, and not least of all, literally hundreds of dissertations.

But at the very heart of the swashbuckling critical activity, there were moments when an inner voice whispered, when tics of discomfort nearly made themselves manifest. For most, it was not that Faulkner represented a region of the country still viewed with suspicion (indeed, his work had done much to convince us of precisely the opposite); rather, it was that one did not quite know what to do with the torrent of abstractions that seemed to slip out so easily from his pen and, in Sweden, from his mouth. After all, Faulkner means to “instruct” more than the adolescent Ike McCaslin—who cannot give voice to the complicated reasons he refused to shoot the enormous bear—when he has an older, presumably wiser McCaslin quote lines from Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (“She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss/ Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair”) and then gloss them as follows:

He was talking about truth. Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the hearthonor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love . . . . They all touch the heart, and what the heart holds to becomes truth, as far as we know truth.”

Faulkner would, of course, repeat the same sentiments in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, but in ways that put the sophisticated on their guard. Hemingway had taught us to distrust abstract words like duty, honor, sacrifice—and it was easier to pass off Faulkner’s overwrought eloquence about the “human heart in conflict with itself” as so much bourbon talking than to take him seriously. But faced with the heart-cracking situation in the Middle East and what shapes up as yet another instance of tragedy unfolding across the backdrop of 20th-century history, I was no longer so confident. Granted, it was easy enough to point out those spots in even the most distinguished of Faulkner’s prose when the Latinate rhythms and high-sounding rhetoric verge into parody; and there were surely examples (e.g., A Fable) when Faulkner simply tries too hard, when his fictional engine locks into high gear and then careens out of control.

Still, the writers who matter most are as much known for their excesses as for their restraint, and in Faulkner’s case probably nothing looms larger, more excessive, than his belief in a wilderness at once primal and innocent, unnamed and untracked. Indeed, this sense of Eden inescapably, tragically lost is what makes him an American writer. But that said, let me hasten to add that no American writer, with the possible exception of Whitman, ever started out consciously to be an American writer; rather, one writes about what is local, what is immediate, what Eudora Welty implies when she talks about “the heart’s field.” Faulkner, of course, talked joco-seriously about his “postage stamp of native soil,” suggesting both the small corner that was Oxford, Mississippi and the postal office where he read and dreamed and wrote what would become the very saga of our century’s malaise. What makes his vision particularly Southern—indeed, what made a serious literature about the South possible—is its insistence that the sin of owning land is co-equal with the slave system in which one man “owned” another. And as we push ever-backward in Faulkner’s mythic kingdom—to ghostly presences such as Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin or Ikkemotubbe—what we realize, with the shock and horror of tragic inevitability, is that the seeds of our collective guilt were sown long, long ago, and that the sins of the fathers are visited mercilessly on their sons. Nonetheless, tragic recognition demands that protagonists accept the bitter knowledge that it is their destiny, and that readers realize, albeit vicariously, that we are guilty, we are responsible, we must fumble our way toward redemption—by renunciation, by penance, by the expiation won through suffering and endurance.

All these elements are “there” in Faulkner as surely as are his dogtrot cabins, crumbling mansions, and country roads. Indeed, the hypnotic cadences of Faulkner’s prose persuades us, first, that Eden’s loss is as palpable as heat or dust, and then that what we had imagined was an exclusively Southern condition is, in truth, modern life in powerful miniature. Small wonder, then, that a whole generation of critics chose to emphasize what was most “orthodox,” most “traditional,” most “Christian” in Faulkner’s work. The long “fall” from pristine innocence, from an unspoiled forest where all men— black and white and red—were brothers is the version most often told by Milton’s American cousins: Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and, not least of all, Faulkner. Granted, Faulkner is less certain about men than he is about forests (the long arc of his “history” containing ample evidence that corruption need only a pair of red slippers to start its engines), but he does allow room for those moments when the social barriers that create an inhuman “other” crumble in moments of communion and community. At the same time, however, Faulkner grew increasingly impatient with efforts to speed that process along—especially if they were imposed from the North and if they trampled over codes of honor and habits of life that he wished to conserve.

In short, one does not look to Faulkner’s work for succor about specific political programs any more than one looks to it for sectarian religious counsel. Ambivalences, ambiguities, assorted ironies, and enough nuances to keep even close-readers breaking their heads for decades abound in his fiction, and in coarser ways were always part of the man. I stress this point because I do not think there is much profit in reading Faulkner as Leopold Bloom apparently tries to read Shakespeare—that is, as a guide for making pragmatic decisions as he bumbles his way through the labyrinth of modern Dublin. Put another way: if Faulkner had anything to say about the Middle East—about its politics or its religious tensions, about Zionism and the Palestinians—I am not aware of it, and even if such a thing existed, no doubt I would regard it with great skepticism.

Rather, what I intend to do is raise some questions about both the how and the why of reading Faulkner; and then to suggest what I suppose can only be called a humanistic application of his vision to circumstances at once radically different and ineluctably the same. Like our greatest literary modernists, Faulkner initially impresses readers with the sheer degree of difficulty required to “domesticate” his work. As Eliot pointed out closer to the beginning of our century than its ending:

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

(“The Metaphysical Poets,” 1921)

A year later, in a review of Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot made it abundantly clear that the “mythic method”—by which he meant, a continuous manipulation of material such that mythic parallels would serve as a work’s substructure, both patterning the work itself and placing the contemporary chaos it explores into a larger perspective—would be the preferred way, indeed, perhaps the only way, that modern writing could proceed. Joyce was, of course, Eliot’s primary example, but other experimentation along similar lines would soon follow—from Yeats, from Lawrence, from F. Scott Fitzgerald, from Hemingway, from Faulkner, and, not least of all, from Eliot himself. And not surprisingly, the Eliot reviewing Joyce’s novel was also the Eliot who was in the very process, with Pound’s help, of bringing The Waste Land to its triumphant, mythic shape.

II

For better or worse, myth—and eventually myth-centered criticism—came to dominate the landscape; and while there were important differences in attitude as well as application, most writers bashed away at a shoddy present with the stick of some Golden (largely imaginary) Past. Curiously enough, Joyce is the significant exception, at least in the sense that Leopold Bloom is simultaneously diminished and ennobled by the constant comparisons to Odysseus. By contrast, most modernist protagonists, whether they found themselves mired in the wasteland of Eliot’s London, spiritually suffocating in Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes, or trapped inside the tight spirals of Thomas Sutpen’s Grand Design, suffered the full burden of consciousness and the gnawing anguish of powerlessness.

Faulkner, in particular, was inclined to juxtapose a legendary past against a crumbling present, shadowy figures of heroic action against their paler, more neurotic counterparts. If there is vitality in his modern world, it is firmly in the amoral, rapacious hands of the Snopeses. Those at the tagend of a nobler tradition either drink themselves into stupors or brood about the gap between their paralysis and a legacy more vexing than inspirational.

Small wonder, then, that Faulkner and his critics were so attracted to Original Sin. It signified, among other things, the Fall I have been talking about in terms of a “wasteland ethos.” But as Irving Howe pointed out in the mid-fifties, there are profound implications in the view that man is a “limited” creature—limited in possibilities and capacities, and hence unable to achieve his salvation through social means:

. . . the problem of history is to determine, by action, how far those limits go. Conservative critics like to say that “man’s fallen nature” makes unrealistic the liberal-radical vision of the good society—apparently, when Eve bit the apple she predetermined, with one fatal crunch, that her progeny could work its way up to capitalism, and not a step further. But the liberal-radical vision of the good society does not depend upon a belief in the “unqualified goodness of man”; nor does it locate salvation in society: anyone in need of being saved had better engage in private scrutiny.

—from “The Age of Conformity”

I cite these lines less to show that even at a time when accommodation was in the saddle, Howe continued to number himself among those who brought sobering news from the adversary culture; rather, I want to use Howe’s remarks to suggest certain important distinctions between what might be called a “Christian” reading of Faulkner and how aspects of its vision might profitably be applied to the radically different cultural milieu of the Middle East. Light in August strikes me as a good place to begin, because in that novel Faulkner focuses nearly as much on religious pathology—as evidenced by the likes of Gail Hightower, Simon McEachern, and Johanna Burden—as he does on the tragic consequences of Joe Christmas’s ambiguous “blood lines.” To be sure, Faulkner reserves his harshest criticisms for the versions of Calvinism that venerate back-breaking labor and a systematic denial of the “natural”; that sees man as a filthy, degenerate, utterly fallen creature; and that tends to seek out the death Reverend Hightower hears in the rhythms of Protestant music: “deliberate and without passion so much as immolation, pleading, asking, for not love, not life, forbidding it to others, demanding in sonorous tones death as though death were the boon.”

Fundamentalism, in short, has no ally in Faulkner; and it is becoming increasingly clear that religious fundamentalism greatly complicates both sides of the issue dividing Israelis and Palestinians. I say this as one who spent a year living, as much as was possible, the day-to-day rhythms of a Hasidic sect: daily prayer and Talmud study, kosher food and the special warmth of Hasidic fellowship. I went not as a potential convert and not even as one in the throes of spiritual trouble, but as a scholar with a book about Yiddish culture under my belt and an NEH grant in my pocket. At that time (the year was 1971, for those who might be wondering) I felt that no Jew was beyond my capacity for understanding, and certainly none was beyond the wide umbrella of my empathy. After all, as the Hasidim I studied with liked to put it, “We were at Sinai together.”

And while I say the following with a certain amount of sadness, it is nonetheless true that I no longer feel as sympathetic, as uncritically accepting, as I once did. There are, alas, Hasidic Jews who strike me as very foreign indeed—not because they sport broad-brimmed black hats and long, flowing capote, unkempt beards and earlocks—but because they seek to impose their definitions of Jewishness itself, their sense of what is permitted, and not permitted, on the Sabbath, and, perhaps scariest of all, their often desperate messianic yearnings onto a secular majority. In democratic Israel, they do what they can—by recklessly tampering with the delicate balance of coalition politics—to establish a theocracy. Walking through the Jewish Quarter with a group of yeshivah students, I found my admiration for their dedication to ancient texts—ones I read with difficulty and in English translation—disappearing by slow degrees as they argued on behalf of the Dome of the Rock being destroyed and the Temple rebuilt. That theirs was giddy talk, the bravado of armchair revolutionaries, is true enough; that the fervor for reinstituting the commandments pertaining to animal sacrifice (suspended after the destruction of the Temple) is also true.

I realize full well that Israel has no monopoly on theocratic zeal, and that there is even grimmer news from the other side—from the track record of Iran’s Islamic revolution to the easy way in which jihad, the Arabic word for “holy war,” rolls off Saddam Hussein’s tongue. And it is here, at the point where Faulkner’s dissection of the fundamentalist temper meets his strong affinity for Biblical rhythms that his work might well prove salutory. For what is Faulkner’s saga of the South if not as series of begattings that move inexorably toward tragedy: the Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin who begat Theophilus (“Uncle Buck”) McCaslin who begat Isaac (“Ike”) McCaslin who turns out to be is the very same Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin who begat Terrel Beauchamp (“Tommy’s Turl”) who begat James Beauchamp. In Faulkner, of course, the point about chronology is that it visits the sins of the fathers on successive generations of sons; and it is those sons who must face the awful moment when social codes force them to treat their half-brothers in ritually correct ways. Of such scenes—and there are many in Faulkner—perhaps none is more powerful, more sensitively evoked, than the moment in “The Fire and the Hearth” when Carothers (“Roth”) Edmonds first realizes (“knew, without wondering or remembering when or how he had learned”) that Henry is a blood relation rather than a black foster-brother:

“Les stay here,” Henry said. “I thought we was going to get up when pappy did and go hunting.”

“You can,” he said. He was already moving toward the door. “I’m going home.”

“All right,” Henry said, following him. And he remembered how they walked that half mile to his house in the first summer dark, himself walking just fast enough that the negro boy never quite came up beside him, entering the house in single file and up the stairs and into the room with the bed and the pallet on the floor which they slept on when they passed the night here, and how he undressed just slow enough for Henry to beat him to the pallet and lie down. Then he went to the bed and lay down on it, rigid, staring up at the dark ceiling even after he heard Henry raise onto one elbow, looking toward the bed with slow and equable astonishment.

Granted, Roth lies there “in a rigid fury of the grief he could not explain, the shame he would not admit,” but he cannot do otherwise. Everything militates toward his perpetuating a status quo that is powerful, perhaps “necessary” as society defines the term, but still deeply and altogether wrong. At such moments—to say nothing of those in which the stakes are higher and the resulting action more dramatic—only the tragic formula of “that which must be, cannot be; and that which cannot be, must be” seems to suffice.

For Roth Edmonds, the gesture of rejection—his sharp “No!” to Henry’s innocent offer to join him in the “big bed”—has a long arc of consequence:

They did not hunt that morning. They never slept in the same room again and never again ate at the same table because he admitted to himself it was shame now and he did not go to Henry’s house and for a month he only saw Henry at a distance. . . . Then one day he knew it was grief and was ready to admit it was shame also, wanted to admit it only it was too late then, forever and forever too late.

Henry had become, in effect, an “other,” and that identity barred him from social privilege at the same moment that it stripped Roth of his humanity. That Faulkner is longer on describing the process than he is in advancing specific programs for what might reverse it is evident to even the most casual of his readers; and only those with a taste for reduction rather than nuance, for “message” rather than catharsis, ever imagined otherwise. At his best, Faulkner implies that the values the heart alone knows to be true will prevail; at his least convincing, he launches into stump speeches—usually by the likes of Gavin Stevens—that are as dramatically unconvincing as they are politically unpalatable.

III

Still, there is much that those in the uncomfortable position as “occupiers” can learn from Faulkner—again, not as prescription, not as “analogy,” surely not as sermon, but as a brave and, I think, necessary beginning. That is why I chose the lines from Absalom, Absalom! as the epigraph for my article. The “old crimes”—vigorously recounted by historians on both sides—end, as they must, in the contentiousness of revisionism, or perhaps worse, in the cynicism that dismisses History itself as the story victors tell.

Now, Israelis are not likely to share Faulkner’s essentially American view about lost Edens and mythic innocence. By that I mean, despite a sense that History is ubiquitous in the South, that it persists in legend, in a thousand mementos and memories, Faulkner continually forces his protagonists—and I would argue, his readers as well—to assessments that leave room for the possibility that love, rather than greed, can lead to theft, that pity accounts for more murders than lust. In short, he suggests that the cunning of history finally counts for less than the individual human heart. Faulkner, of course, has in mind the movements that cause Henry Sutpen to kill Charles Bon, but one wonders if the less stylized confrontations in which whole peoples become embroiled are so radically different. And while I can imagine a whole litany of reasons why Israelis might be put off by the ahistoricity, the airy transcendentalism of such notions, I would simply point out that one way to describe the burden of Israel is to focus on the gap between what the country was supposed to be, and what it became—and that this description, with a snip here, a tuck there, might also be a useful way of describing Absalom, Absalom!

Nor are Israeli writers and readers the only ones I have in mind here, for the greatness we recognize in Faulkner’s work—namely, its uncanny ability to be simultaneously of and yet beyond the region that gave its vision particularity— reminds us yet again of how powerful vicarious experiences can be. If it is perhaps understandable that Jewish-American writers have tended to shy away from writing about the Middle East (among the more charitable explanations are: an unwillingness to add more superficial commentary to the pile, a reluctance to be as “pietistic” about Israel as many readers will expect, a recognition that they, in fact, know very little about Israel, and that silence is the better part of valor), the prolific, deliciously satirical John Updike has been more than happy to fill the breach. His portrait of Henry Bech, the quintessentially alienated New York intellectual, includes these examples from “The Holy Land,” in which Bech takes his swooning, sentimentalizing bride for a visit to Israel:

I never should have married a Christian, Bech thought, fighting his way up the Via Dolorosa. . . . His artist’s eye, always, was drawn to the irrelevant: the overlay of commercialism upon this ancient sacred way fascinated him— Kodachrome where Christ stumbled, bottled Fanta where He thirsted. Scarves, caftans, olive-wood knicknacks begged to be bought. As a child, Bech had worried that merchants would starve; Union Avenue in Williamsburg, near where his uncles lived on South Second Street, had been lined with disregarded narrow shops, a Kafka world of hungry artists waiting unwatching in their cages. This was worse.

But if Bech is excruciatingly uncomfortable as he retraces Christ’s steps along the Via Dolorosa, his bride, the former Beatrice Latchett Cook, “was enraptured simply at being on Israel’s soil. She kept calling it “The Holy Land.”” By contrast, Bech quickly discovers that Israel makes him “nervous,” that it reminds him of Samson and Delilah. Pulled from one religious site to another—the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and of course, the Wailing Wall—Bech remains stolidly unmoved: “Craziness, down through history, has performed impressively.” That Bea oohs and aahs over each monument to religious fanaticism, sentimentalizing centuries of self-righteous slaughtering, drives Bech up his own [ambivalent] Wall:

Israel had no other sentimental significance for him; his father, a Marxist of a theoretical and unenrolled sort, had lumped the Zionists with all the Luftmenschen who imagined that mollifying exceptions might be stitched into the world’s cruel and necessary patchwork of rapine and exploitation. To postwar Bech, busy in Manhattan, events in Palestine had passed as one more mop-up scuffle, though involving a team with whom he identified as effortlessly as with the Yankees.

I suspect that Updike felt a considerable pressure to bring Bech to Israel; indeed, he no doubt felt that what most Jewish-American writers do not share—namely, that a full portrait of a Jewish-American would not be complete without such an encounter. After all, as one Israeli writer dryly points out during one of those equally obligatory dinners arranged for distinguished visitors at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim (Israel’s version of the writers’ colony): “Henry Bech will go back and write a best-selling book about us. Everyone does.” But Bech is not Saul Bellow (who, of course, did precisely that), much less the Philip Roth of The Counterlife. His blockbuster will come later, and in ways that have nothing to do with Israel and, alas, everything to do with this pragmatic, altogether practical wife/muse Bea. In fact, the best Bech can muster up publicly is the less-than-breathtaking observation that “Arabs . . .are the blacks of Israel.” And when he muses, at the end of the story, about the meaning of his experiences, the “words” might be Bech’s, but its essential music is pure Updike: “The holy land was where you accepted being. Middle age was a holy land. Marriage.”

To be sure, the point of Updike’s rather drawn-out joke is that Bech finds in Scotland, the land of Beatrice’s “roots,” the exhilaration had systematically eluded him in Israel:

In this serene, schizophrenic capital—divided by the verdant cleavage of a loch drained in 1816—he admired the biggest monument ever erected to an author, a spiky huge spire sheltering a statue of Sir Walter Scott and his dog, and he glanced, along the slanting Royal Mile, down miniscule alleys in the like of which Boswell had caught and clipped his dear prostitutes. “Heaven,” Bech kept telling Bea, who began to resent it.

That Updike has ironic reversals in mind—a Christian who swoons in the “holy land”; a Jew who waxes rhapsodic amid the Scots—is clear enough, but one wonders if there isn’t a more serious subtext bubbling just beneath the satiric surface. For if, say, Philip Roth has taken some pains—in The Counterlife and more recently, in Deception—to suggest just how infuriating the snobbish anti-Semitism of British “Christendom” can be, Updike means to suggest precisely the opposite—namely, that prejudice and hypocrisy fluorish in Israel as perhaps nowhere else. Given Bech’s wide, and comically deflating, travels, these are serious charges indeed.

All of which tends to confirm my original suspicion that Faulkner may yet serve for writing about the Middle East something of the function that Joyce served for immigrant Jewish authors like Henry Roth, Isaac Rosenfeld, and Delmore Schwartz. As the latter group saw it, the particulars of Joyce’s Catholic education—with its heavy dose of catechism and Aquinas—mattered less than the liberation he credentialed to those living in another time, another place. Roughly the same things can be true for Faulkner. Granted, certain of his views—e.g., that “suffering” is redemptive and ought to be borne with a [Christian] Job-like “patience”—will require modification; but the “fix” his work takes on the tumult of the past reverberating through the individual heart was, and is, the very stuff out of which important literature must be made. Faulkner’s technical brilliance can teach writers much that they need to know. But his vision of what it means when a heart is in conflict with itself, when good clashes against good rather than against evil, when driving complexities force us to use words such as courage and honor and pity, is perhaps more essential—not only for those who would write, but also for those who would “read.”

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading